Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 3 General Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.
The following came from Luke Evslin, one of 14 candidates for seven positions on the Kauai County Council. Other candidates include Jade Battad, Addison Bulosan, Bernard Carvalho, Mason Chock, Felicia Cowden, Mike Dandurand, Billy DeCosta, Richard Fukushima, Ed Justus, Arryl Kaneshiro, KipuKai Kuali’i, Wally Nishimura and Shirley Simbre-Medeiros.
1. Hawaii’s economy has been hard hit with the outbreak of the coronavirus and measures to prevent its spread, mainly because of the collapse of the tourism industry. Should we continue to rely largely on the visitor industry for economic vitality? What concrete steps would you take to bring tourism back? What else would you do to diversify the island’s economy?
According to the Kauai Tourism Strategic Plan, the tourism levels of the last few years have “overstretched the resources and infrastructure of Kauai” and it is “clear that the status quo for Kauai tourism cannot continue.” Not only are residents frustrated and our infrastructure impacted, but when tourism levels are too high, tourist satisfaction and visitor spending goes down. And, as we are seeing right now, too much reliance on tourism makes us much less resilient in the face of global events outside of our control.
Moving forward, it is vital that we continue to recognize tourism as one of the key pillars of our economy, but with stricter controls on its growth. To bring tourism back to sustainable levels, our most immediate priority has to be on continued safety protocols to ensure that we are a safe destination. In the longer term, the county’s best tools for regulating tourism are to:
• Charge tourists for access to our natural resources such as beach parks.
• Continue the crackdown on illegal TVRs.
• Tighten restrictions on existing TVRs and use property taxes and other land use tools to incentivize their conversion to long-term rentals.
One necessary step to diversify the island’s economy is to lower the barrier to entry for island businesses, such as allowing agricultural retail sales on agricultural land.
2. As the economy struggles, the county may have to cut expenses and seek new revenue sources. What would you cut? And what is an area where you see potential new revenue?
During any economic downturn, it is vital that the county pulls every lever it can to stabilize and revitalize the economy. In the face of declining revenue, that means prioritizing expenses that put money into the local economy such as social services, infrastructure projects, grants in aid, and employee salaries. We can maintain a balanced budget without severely contracting our spending by taking advantage of low-interest bonds and municipal liquidity facilities for infrastructure projects, as well as leveraging county money to access federal grants through, for example, affordable housing construction.
But, in the event of a long or deep recession, we will ultimately need to find new sources of county revenue as well as continue to make painful cuts to our budget.
New sources of revenue can be through paid parking for tourists at beach parks as well as by expanding our current residential investor property tax rate to ensure that vacant homes are paying their fair share of property taxes. As cuts are made, we need to first look at any money that flows off-island, like new equipment purchases and travel and training.
3. What would you have done differently to handle the coronavirus crisis on Kauai?
Even with the benefit of hindsight, I think that Mayor Kawakami and his team along with Dr. Berreman from the Department of Health made the correct decisions for Kauai in quickly shutting down the island. As we prepare for managing the coronavirus until there is a vaccine, we need to balance the need for safety with the need to open our economy. Masks and continued efforts at social distancing are our first line of defense.
While I know that there are a number of legal and implementation barriers, I believe that the quarantine duration can be reduced significantly with adequate testing of visitors both before they leave and after they arrive. This will allow us to restart tourism, and to do it in a way that is safe and effective. With growing levels of depression and anxiety nationwide along with mounting evidence for the relative safety of the outdoors in reducing the chances of spreading the coronavirus, I believe we also need to encourage the use of outdoor public spaces for social connection, recreation and exercise.
4. Homelessness remains a problem statewide, including on Kauai. What would you do to come to grips on this persistent problem?
Homelessness has a variety of different causes, including high housing costs, a lack of economic opportunity, mental illness, and substance abuse — and so it has to be addressed from a variety of different levels. Because homelessness correlates to the cost of housing (higher housing costs, more homelessness) we need to do everything possible to reduce the cost of housing on Kauai ,which I discuss more in question 9.
Along with reducing the cost of housing islandwide and more subsidized housing for working families that cannot afford a market-priced home, we also need a Housing First policy, where those who cannot work have access to a clean, safe and healthy home environment. These policies aren’t only a moral imperative, but they have been shown nationwide to save money due to reduced health care and first responder costs. The county is already moving in this direction in a number of ways, including building tiny home villages for the homeless.
Lastly, the state needs to invest more in-patient services for those suffering from mental health and substance abuse problems.
5. Recent deaths of citizens at the hands of police are igniting protests and calls for reform across the country, primarily aimed at preventing discrimination against people of color. Do you see this issue as a problem in Kauai County? What should be done to improve policing and police accountability on Kauai? Should oversight of the police department be strengthened or reformed?
Excessive use of force by the police is an issue of national concern and I think it is vital that we reform use of force policies nationwide, starting with looking at our use of force policies on Kauai. That said, we are fortunate to have a police department where the officers mostly come from our small community where everyone is connected in some way as well as a department that reflects the ethnic makeup of our island. Due at least partially to that, we have very low numbers of complaints of excessive use of force and I don’t know of a single complaint or lawsuit alleging racial discrimination by members of the Kauai Police Department.
While excessive police violence isn’t as big of an issue on Kauai as it is elsewhere, the systemic racism that is part of the cause is just as prevalent in Hawaii as elsewhere and needs to be rooted out through policy. For example, Native Hawaiians still suffer from discriminatory lending practices and are more likely to live in areas where they will be impacted by pollution or other environmental hazards, we have zoning codes which were developed exclusively to keep low-income people out of certain neighborhoods, and we have entire communities that are left out of the political process.
6. Hawaii’s public records law mandates that public records be made available whenever possible. Gov. David Ige suspended the open government laws under an emergency order during the pandemic. Do you agree or disagree with his action? What would you do to ensure the public has access to open meetings and public records in a timely fashion?
I fully support Gov. Ige waiving the open government laws during the pandemic. When the Sunshine Law was still in place, myself — and every other council member in Hawaii — had to attend council meetings in person, sitting just a foot or so away from our colleagues. The temporary lifting of the Sunshine Law allows me to attend council meetings remotely so that I can practice social distancing just like we’re asking every other resident to do.
Due to the rapid action necessary, it was unfortunate that it took us a few weeks to allow for live video testimony — but now that some of the technological hurdles have been worked through, I think that we are operating just as transparently with as much community feedback as we were prior to the pandemic. I have advocated for, and will continue to advocate for, better technology for us to be able to have more interaction and engagement with the public in our council meetings and I am personally committed to continuing to abide by the spirit of the Sunshine Law.
7. What more should Kauai County be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
In addition to the devastating impacts of sea-level rise (which include the loss of beaches, entire communities and roadways), the future impacts of climate change include ocean acidification and the loss of our coral reefs, the potential collapse of our nearshore fisheries because of it, the threats to our watershed from drought and higher temperatures, increased likelihood of storm events like the devastating April 2018 floods, the extinction of our native forest birds due to increasing range of mosquitos and the spread of avian malaria, declining tourists and economic vitality due to the loss of our beaches, plus social, economic, and political instability locally and nationally due to increasing numbers of refugees who are forced to leave their ancestral homes because they’re underwater or otherwise inhospitable.
We need separate policies to adapt to every single one of these issues, but the overarching goal driving every decision we make has to be the need to get to zero carbon by 2050 to reduce the magnitude of the impacts of climate change while being an example for the world to follow. Please visit my website for more info on specific policies to adapt to and mitigate the threats of climate change.
8. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Hawaii. Be innovative, but be specific.
Along with exposing deep flaws in government and widening existing rifts in our economy, the coronavirus has also brought us together in countless ways. Within days, everyone had a hand-sewn mask. Neighbors delivered food to each other and checked in on kupuna. Everywhere on Kauai you’re greeted by smiling faces and a helping hand. Our island’s biggest strength is our sense of community.
Because of the reduced risk of transmitting the coronavirus outdoors, I believe that it’s vital for us to revitalize our outdoor public spaces as a way to increase social connectivity, health and resilience. As we face a prolonged period of social distancing which is already leading to anxiety and depression and a host of other negative outcomes nationwide, we need to ensure safe opportunities for the types of social connections that help foster community.
This means everything from making it easier for restaurants and coffee shops to add outdoor seating, utilizing federal stimulus money to invest in our public parks, investing in the tools (such as paid parking for tourists) to ensure that residents have priority in our beach parks, and, for the long term, designing our towns and communities around public places that can provide both a sense of place and social connection.
9. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The cost of housing is by far the most pressing issue for Kauai, and it impacts every other issue that we face. We can’t ensure economic diversification if young people can’t afford to take a risk on starting a business. We can’t increase educational outcomes if we have a teacher shortage because teachers can’t afford a house. We can’t increase opportunities for farming as long as properties are more profitable growing houses than crops. We can’t make a significant impact reducing carbon emissions as long as we keep building most of our new homes far from job centers which require lengthy commutes.
While the County Council has limited power for so many of our systemic issues — we have full authority over the density, location and form of development. We need to use these tools to continually break down barriers to housing development within and around our town cores and we need to remove red tape and fees to ensure that families can easily add on a unit for their children or aging parents or just to get some rental income. We also need to use property taxes to further disincentive vacant home ownership and vacation rentals while incentivizing affordable rentals.